By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
After fits and starts, Syria and the United States have taken steps in recent days that could lay the groundwork for a greatly improved relationship, officials from both countries said yesterday.
Syria has agreed to let a delegation of U.S. military commanders visit Damascus in the coming weeks, when they will discuss joint efforts to stem the insurgency in Iraq. The Obama administration's Middle East peace envoy, George J. Mitchell, is also planning a trip to Damascus this month. Mitchell, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in four years, will probe whether it is ready to engage in serious peace talks with Israel.
The visits were sealed in a phone call Sunday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, though Syria has not yet confirmed a date for the military visit. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said yesterday, "They agreed to have ongoing conversations about a full range of issues."
U.S. officials said the administration was not committing to drafting a formal plan for improving relations, but the two visits could form the building blocks of a new relationship. Although officials from U.S. Central Command have met their Syrian counterparts at regional security meetings on Iraq, military officials have been unable for years to have a thorough, joint discussion on the situation in Iraq.
"If we can move on the Mitchell agenda and the Iraq agenda, that will have a positive effect on the bilateral relationship," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issues publicly. "But there has to be action on both sides. It is not simply that the Syrians get to sit there and wait for us."
Central Command officials did not respond to a request for details on who would travel to Damascus, but other U.S. officials said the officers would not be high-ranking.
Still, Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, hailed the military visit as a potential breakthrough. "The Bush administration used to accuse us of aiding the insurgents, and we used to say it was untrue," he said. "We said we needed to sit together and discuss the issue, but they would not do that."
With the Obama administration, "we have a very different context," Moustapha said. "This administration wants to address all issues. We believe this is a very strong opportunity to cooperate with this administration."
Moustapha said helping bring peace to Iraq is in Syria's interest because it is harboring 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. "They will not leave until they think it is safe," he said.
The United States has not had an ambassador in Syria since 2005, when the Bush administration withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon battling Syrian influence in that country. There are no signs that the Obama administration is close to sending an ambassador back to Damascus.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman has made two visits to Syria since President Obama took office, but until now there was little indication of a rapprochement between the two countries.
Indeed, Moustapha said the administration's decision last month to renew sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act was "very problematic" and shows that it still can be "captive to Israel's interests."
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who first disclosed the military visit on The Post's online feature PostPartisan late Monday, reported that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) played an important role in easing friction between the two countries after Obama renewed the sanctions.